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Quote – Saint Teresa of Avila
You need not go to heaven to see God; nor need you speak loud, as if God were far away; nor need you cry for wings like a dove to fly to God. Only be in silence, and you will come upon God within yourself.
Quote – Tara Brach, From her book, Radical Acceptance
Through the sacred art of pausing, we develop the capacity to stop hiding, to stop running away from our own experience. We begin to trust in our natural intelligence, in our naturally wise heart, in our capacity to open to what arises.
Quote – Mother Teresa
We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. . . . We need silence to be able to touch souls.
Second Reading “Today” by Mary Oliver
Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
When I first saw stillness was the theme this month, I pictured myself on a cold clear night looking up at a dark sky filled with stars. Maybe some snow on the ground – creating that muffled quiet that feels even more pronounced on a night like that? A feeling of stillness, inside and out.
It seems right, that kind of stillness, that kind of soulfulness for December. This whole month feels to me imbued with a sense of holiness, of reverence, that even crass commercialization hasn’t been able to quell, at least, not for me. In the Christian tradition, this advent month is traditionally a time of waiting, anticipation. In the Jewish tradition, it is a time set apart for light, and miracles, and hope.
And I love the contrast stillness has with the election stress we all just went through, the lead-up, the aftermath… Stillness feels right, like the calm after the storm. A deep breath. A door into the temple. An invitation to follow into the grandeur of the stars, the moon, the sun. An invitation to touch the soul, to, As St Teresa of Avila puts it, to come upon the God within ourselves.
So that’s sweet, right? Feels good. Even just talking about it, I feel my body relaxing a bit.
And, but… you know I wouldn’t be preaching on it if it were that simple. If it were just a question of walking out the door on a dark starry night and taking a deep breath.
If it were easy, we’d all just be doing it. We’d all be at peace, unperturbed and, pretty soon, perhaps, enlightened. Or at least, able to enter into this state of reverential stillness, of a connection with the universe and all that is holy, whenever we wanted or needed to.
But the reason I am talking about it, the reason I think Christians have created a whole season dedicated to the practice of pausing, waiting, anticipating…. the reason our Jewish siblings make an explicit practice of slowing down for a weekly sabbath, is because it’s actually really hard to pause. It’s hard to create stillness, slow down, cultivate spaciousness. Most of us need direction, structure, encouragement, and practice.
I have evidence of this need. I had watched the better part of 3 videos about slowing down before I realized the irony of playing them at double speed – you know how you can do that on youtube these days.
I have tried off and on to drive no more than 5 mph above the speed limit. It’s safer, it’s better for my car, it’s better for the environment. But, it makes me antsy. And, I forget. Rather more often than I would like. Please forgive my fallible humanity if you clock my little blue car on the highway going 75… again.
And, yes, I confess, that when my online yoga teacher says to me. And now, stretch your legs to the corner of the mat for “savasana,” that 2 or 3 minutes of stillness and relaxation for the body at the end of a yoga practice I’m embarrassed to say how often I take that opportunity to, instead, leap up and go do the next thing on my to do list.
There are, of course, reasons, why it’s hard for many of us to slow down. There’s reasons why we may struggle to accept that invitation from the leaves and flowers and trees to grow in silence with them and open ourselves to that still, soulful voice in our chaotic world.
For some of us, being still brings up associations of being told to sit still growing up. How many times were we told to sit still at school. At the dentist (yikes) At church even – many of us were told sit still at churches whose teachings were not of our choosing… Now, as adults, the idea of being still may carry associations with being told what to do, having to spend time in ways we didn’t want to… may now carry associations with feeling constricted, constrained, antsy.
And, many of us, growing up, when we did something we shouldn’t have, we were sent off to the corner, or to our room, be alone to think about what we’d done. A move that, while it may have served an important purpose, may also have had the unintended consequence of associating quiet time with guilt, or just, bad feelings, punishment, isolation, all mashed into one big set of conditioning that may subtly keep us from this sacred art, this beautiful gift, now.
Maybe the most obvious reason though is that I think most of us feel some kind of pressure, whether it’s external or internal. Pressure to attend to that list. To make things happen. Afterall, most of us don’t get paid to lie down on a yoga mat and breathe, no matter how good that might be for our bodies or our souls. And honestly, even if we don’t work at a paid job, it’s the rare person who doesn’t feel some pressure to perform, do, we don’t want to be seen as not doing “enough,” whatever that means.
Rev Victoria Safford once came across a gravestone which read, of the deceased “She attended well and faithfully to a few worthy things.” Safford thought it a little stingy, she said, on the part of her survivors. A little meager as a summation of someone’s whole life. Reflecting on it further, however, she contrasted this idea of attending to just a few worthy things to an imagined obituary for her own life, which, if she happened to be struck by lightening in that moment might read: “She attended frantically and ineffectually to a great many unimportant, meaningless details.”
I think I may be at risk of a similar fate. There’s a lot that seems important in any moment. It can keep any of us busy, frantic even, could cause us to miss the big picture of what those few worthy things might be for us, where the real and resonant meaning in our lives, can actually be found.
But I think, at least for me, the hardest part of being still, is what comes up, when I put my various activities down. I’ve talked about this before but it strikes me as the meat and potatoes of the spiritual path. It’s those feelings, or thoughts, that come bubbling up when I point myself toward spiritual teachings, when I strive to live with greater love[i] or, in this case, a greater spaciousness that makes room for that love.
These are the feelings that come up when I stop doing, and start being, just become present to what is here now, are so often uncomfortable. Sometimes they’re downright painful. I think for me, some of it may well be that old conditioning that I should be doing something else, maybe it’s that old antsyness, the feeling of aloneness.
Or, for any of us, what come up may be losses that still ache, unhealed memories asking for attention and care. Or just the pain of what it is, to be alive.
I like what world explorer and travel writer Pico Ayer’s has to say on what’s possible when we right-size our culture’s focus on achievement and create some space.
“Our lives might be a lot more balanced if we learn to re-allocated prestige, he writes, pulling it away from those with a full [calendar] and towards those wise enough to allow for some afternoons of reflection. We should think that there is courage not just in traveling the world, but also in daring to sit at home with one’s thoughts for a while, risking encounters with certain anxiety-inducing or melancholy but also highly necessary ideas. Without the shield of busy-ness, we might bump into the realization that our relationship has reached an impasse, that our work no longer answers to any higher purpose or that we feel furious with a family member who is subtly exploiting our patience. The heroically hard worker isn’t necessarily the one in the business lounge of the international airport, it might be the person gazing without expression out of the window, and occasionally writing down one or two ideas on a pad of paper… The point of ‘doing nothing’ is to clean up our inner lives…”
Sitting at home, with certain anxiety-inducing or melancholy may not sound like a fun afternoon, but it may be exactly what we need to unearth important realizations. The point of ‘doing nothing’ may be to clean up our inner lives…
Which makes me think – that while the idea of being able to jump directly into stillness, reverence and communion with the stars might sound nice, maybe it misses the point. Maybe part of the point of stillness is in fact to face and feel, to sift and sort, to process and move through.
In the same Ted talk I quoted earlier Pico Ayer also mentions a google employee who’s writing a book on what he calls the “inner search engine” and the ways in which science has empirically shown that sitting still, or meditation, can lead not just to better health or to clearer thinking, but even to emotional intelligence. You might say that wisdom, begins to open up to us.
Okay. So here we are in December, a month that is traditionally hectic, blaring, bright, chaotic, joyful, exhausting, and occasionally a little crass. And whether you love that or hate it, this year is so different. In fact, it might kind of feel like we’re getting a global time-out. Sent to our houses to be more alone than many of us would like. And that feels hard. And stuff comes up. Just the other day a colleague of mine talked about his normally stoic, widowed, father who was recently weeping, with the simple longing to just hug someone.
Right about now, for many, stillness doesn’t feel like a gift. It may even feel like a punishment. And we didn’t do anything wrong…
But maybe we get to re-imagine our relationship with stillness anyway. I once heard a wise person say something like, even when you haven’t chosen some circumstance, you can choose it anyway. That sounds counter-intuitive, but what I think they meant was, even if something happens that you do not want, that you wish with all your heart was different, you can still, after the fact, act as if you had chosen it, as if you had planned to take on, whatever it was. Not that this will necessarily make it any easier. The feelings are still hard, the longing, the separation, are still real. But when we accept even the unwelcome, it can change our relationship to the feelings we do have. We don’t have to paper them over or pretend they are not there, we don’t have to frantically try to make it better.
Sometimes when we open our eyes to what is painful we also begin to see what is beautiful more clearly, what is poignant. We may see, more clearly, what and who we love, what is worthy, for us, even if it or they are outside of our ability to physically touch in this moment or this season.
I want to end with a story one of my colleagues told of being in seminary, living in the dorm, and anticipating finals during the season of Hanukkah. She was over the top stressed out, As were her fellow seminarians. But every evening during Hanukkah, she, as a Jewish woman, would light the Hanukkah candles. And, no matter how worried, uneasy, or pressured she felt that day, she would take the time to just pause, and sit, and watch them burn. And she found that nearly every night, as fellow students happened by her open door, one by one they would see the candles, see her, and join her, no matter how worried, uneasy or pressure they might have felt, until she had a room full of seminarians, connected by circumstance, all quietly pausing, watching candles burn, together.
Today, I want to invite you into stillness. Here in this space where we are not alone, where we are together. Where we are all connected in our circumstance. An opportunity to choose stillness. To practice. Just simply letting be, what already is.
Carolyn Mark has agreed to light the Hanukkah candles for our service today, and although we will only sit for a couple of minutes now, we will have them lit and burning for the rest of the service.
Carving out time for quiet may not be immediately dazzling, compelling, or sexy. It will not win awards, at least, not of its own accord. But it is in the absence of frazzled attendance to too many details, it is in spaciousness, that what is truly worthy can begin to emerge again. It is practicing stillness with all its attendant discomfort, that we might develop the discipline, humility and the wisdom to attend faithfully, to those few things that matter the most, to us.
May it be so, amen.